Phone users could pay more than necessary and receive lower quality service by sticking with the UK’s largest mobile networks, the consumer champion Which? said.

O2, EE, Vodafone and Three rank lower on customer service and value for money than their lesser-known rivals, according to a survey of phone users.

This despite virtual networks using the same cell towers and other infrastructure as the so-called Big Four rather than running their own services.

Three had the lowest Big Four score and received the lowest rating of any network for reliability.

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Almost half (45%) of Three users have experienced problems in the past year, compared to three in ten (29%) of all mobile network customers surveyed.

The Smarty virtual network uses the same infrastructure as Three but tops the rankings with five out of five stars for value for money.

Britain’s largest network, EE, came in 11th out of 16 providers analyzed, with users reporting poor customer service, technical support and value for money. Network download speeds were the only category to earn a four-star rating.

The big four providers currently serve three-quarters (76%) of customers in the UK, according to Ofcom.

But consumer champions Which one? say the flexibility offered by virtual networks reduces mobile phone costs and could better help consumers facing a squeeze on household budgets.

It found that customers on average pay almost £10 a month less than Big Four customers across all contract types.

Natalie Hitchins at who? Said: “The vast majority of mobile users are with one of the big four providers, but our research suggests consumers could save money during the cost-of-living crisis and get better service by switching to one. one of the networks challenging their domination.

“Anyone looking for a reliable carrier with a flexible contract and value for money should consider one of the virtual networks, which continue to outperform the Big Four year after year.”

Who? said Big Four customers saw price increases of up to 11% but remained the most loyal, with more than half of EE, O2 and Vodafone users having been with the provider for more than five years .

Experts warn that those customers who stay longer will likely pay more than necessary for their phone contract.

Who? suggests challenger vendors have an advantage over bigger players by focusing on rolling out monthly sim deals to phones with long contracts.

Retail sales fell in March as the rising cost of living hit households and shoppers cut back on unnecessary purchases, the ONS reported on Friday.

And steam giant Netflix has reported a sharp drop in subscriber numbers, a sign that consumers are cutting back on subscription services to save money.

An EE spokesperson said: “EE customers love being part of the biggest and fastest network in the UK with 5G coverage better than any other provider and EE has been named the best network in the UK. over the past eight years by RootMetrics.

“We provide the best customer service in the industry, as evidenced by the most recent complaints data from Ofcom.”

Three and O2 have been contacted for comment.